Megan Taylor

front-end dev, volunteacher, news & data junkie, bibliophile, Flyers fan, sci-fi geek and kitteh servant

Google will tell you when you’re going to get sick

I hate flu season.

Mostly because everyone around me gets sick and depressed and my well-meaning parents nag me to get a shot I don’t have time to wander around looking for.

Somehow, despite not getting a flu shot since sometime in middle school, I haven’t had the flu in years. The last time I got it, I was ridiculously sick for 24 hours, and then I was just fine. I <3 my immune system. But for those of you who do get sick, Google has a new toy for you. (If ever I were going to be a fangirl, it would be for Google.)

Using the existing Google Trends, Google Flu Trends predicts flu activity based on search terms.

From their about page:

Each week, millions of users around the world search for online health information. As you might expect, there are more flu-related searches during flu season, more allergy-related searches during allergy season, and more sunburn-related searches during the summer. You can explore all of these phenomena using Google Trends. But can search query trends provide an accurate, reliable model of real-world phenomena?

We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms. Of course, not every person who searches for “flu” is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries from each state and region are added together. We compared our query counts with data from a surveillance system managed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and found that some search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening. By counting how often we see these search queries, we can estimate how much flu is circulating in various regions of the United States.

During the 2007-2008 flu season, an early version of Google Flu Trends was used to share results each week with the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch of the Influenza Division at CDC. Across each of the nine surveillance regions of the United States, we were able to accurately estimate current flu levels one to two weeks faster than published CDC reports.

But my favorite part is this: You can download the raw data being used to generate all those nifty charts and maps.

Now, someone please tell me they’ve downloaded that data and are turning it into a swoon-worthy app for their news website?

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